The Obama administration recently overturned a federal judge's decision to proceed with building the Dakota Access Pipeline, temporarily halting the project. Protesters have been fighting against the pipeline's construction for months because if it is completed, it could potentially damage native american ancestral sites and contaminate a nearby reservation's water supply.
The estimated $3.7 billion pipeline would carry 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from western North Dakota to Illinois where it would connect with an existing pipeline. But protesters have halted the building of a section that would go under the Missouri River, running very near to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Lawyers representing the Standing Rock Sioux argue that by approving the pipeline construction, the Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Historic Preservation Act. They say the pipeline would damage ancestral sites and put the reservation's water supply in danger.
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Protesters say the blocking of the Dakota Access pipeline represents the bigger issue at hand; the fact that many of the oil pipelines and rail lines built in recent years run right through or near Native American reservations. When fossil fuels are transported, there is always a risk of pollution to the surrounding air, water and land.
"Every time there's a project of this magnitude, so the nation can benefit, there's a cost," Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, told the LA Times. "That cost is born by tribal nations," he said.
Archambault is one of 30 protesters recently arrested for creating "safety issues," at the pipeline's current construction site, according to Morton County sheriff, Kyle Kirchmeier. The concern over safety is what initially halted the pipeline's construction.
To the surprise of many tribal leaders like Archambault, the protest against the Dakota Access pipeline has drawn international support. Environmental groups, as well as a few celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Susan Sarandon, have shown their support for the fight, either online or in-person.
The Corps of Engineers argued in court last week that those opposed to the pipeline had plenty of time to voice concerns during a review process, and that the project was legitimately approved. The company hired to build the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, added that it's a safer way of transporting oil compared to a rail line.
In 2015, the Fraser Institute in Canada found that transporting oil by pipeline is 4.5 times safer than transporting it by rail, reports Fortune. At the time, a Fraser representative commented that "saying 'No' to a pipeline is saying 'Yes' to rail," and this will "increase the risk to the environment and human health and not decrease it."
However, if the protests of Dakota Access manage to terminate its current implementation plan, it doesn't mean a rail line will automatically be the alternative. The Corps of Engineers could agree to reroute the pipeline to avoid affecting tribal lands instead.
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Some of the Dakota Access protesters stood their ground for weeks until the decision on whether the project would continue was finalized.
Clyde Bellecourt was one of them. He's Ojibwe from Minnesota and he helped found the American Indian Movement which became famous for the 71-day siege in Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973. Bellecourt is 80 years old now and said this time he's fighting for future generations of Native Americans.
"My life is almost over, but there's fresh energy here," he told the LA Times. "Save the children - that's what this is all about."
Some of those 'children' are also part of the protest themselves. Jasilyn Charger is only 20 years old but has been committed to this cause since its beginning as a small prayer group along the river. Charger is one of the runners that participated in a 2,000-mile relay race from North Dakota to Washington, D.C. to march in protest of the Dakota Access pipeline in front of the White House.
"When we started this, people thought we were crazy," she told the LA Times. "But look at where we are today."
-- Molly Fosco
Democracy Now!: In Dramatic Reversal, White House Halts Dakota Access Pipeline Construction Under Missouri River
New York Times: From 280 Tribes, a Protest on the Plains
Vox: The fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline, explained